Translated by Janet Cole
'Semester vid kusten' (Holiday by the Sea) is from Åsa Foster's short-story collection Man måste inte alltid tala om det (You Don't Always Have to Talk About It), Bokförlaget Forum, 2014.
This article appeared in the 2014:1 issue.
Åsa Foster has divided her time in the past few years between Sweden and South Africa. She now lives in Skåne, the quiet countryside around her home contrasting sharply with the sense of threat and danger that pervades her stories of life in South Africa. It is a country that began opening up to her when she went there in 1997 to study Political Science in Kwa Zulu-Natal, fascinated by the huge political changes affecting the nation.
The stories reflect the strongly hierarchical and conservative nature of South African society even today. Underlying them all is Foster’s awareness of the balance of power - between men and women, black and white, rich and poor – and what can happen when it is disturbed. The stories are also linked, says the author, by the common theme of the moment when one thing becomes another.
Foster hopes that the award of the most recent Nobel Prize in Literature to Alice Munro will encourage more readers to dip into the short-story genre. Man måste inte alltid tala om det is her first published collection; the story featured here, ‘Semester vid kusten’, was selected for the first Swedish edition of Granta magazine. It is also earmarked to appear in the Brazilian Granta later in 2014.
In ‘Semester vid kusten’, a married couple is trying to piece together a disintegrating relationship by that well-tried but so often futile expedient: a family holiday. This is the story in full; an extract from it appeared in the spring 2014 issue of SBR.
The houses are identical, in rows, with mint green and pink facades. We follow the signs until we reach our number. It’s the coastal colours that make it, I think to myself. Pastel colours, which would be out of place anywhere else but here, against the palms and the cloudless sky.
Luke and Julie tear open the doors, arguing who should sleep where. Julie sulks and says that she doesn’t always want to have the smallest room, but I say that it’s at least nearest the bathroom and that shuts her up.
I unpack the shopping bags and put the food in the fridge. Luke grabs a packet of biscuits and I tell him to put it back, but then he puts his head on one side and looks so miserable that I give in.
‘Share them with your sister!’ I say and then I hear Julie shouting at him. John has gone out onto the terrace and is calling me.
‘You must come and see the view!’
I pretend not to hear him but then he comes in instead.
‘You can see the sea.’
‘I’m putting the food away.’
He holds out his arm to me.
‘That can wait. Come with me now.’
I sigh, dry my hands on my shorts and follow him. He stands by the railing smiling like an explorer who has just sighted virgin land.
‘It’s very nice.’
‘Very nice? Is that all?’
I glance at him and go back into the house. He calls me, but I don’t reply. The kids are fooling around in front of the TV. I go on putting the food away. John reappears in the kitchen.
‘I’ll pour you a glass of wine,’ he says. ‘Then you can sit outside and chill out.’
‘You know they said they’ve had problems with monkeys and we shouldn’t leave anything out.’
He opens cupboard after cupboard.
‘You don’t think they’d come when we’re here? Right in front of our eyes!’
He’s found two glasses and starts rummaging in the bags for the wine. Then he pours me some and hands me the glass.
‘Come on. Let’s sit down and enjoy the sea view for a while.’
I open my mouth, but stop myself. I take the glass instead, smile and shake my head.
‘OK,’ I say. ‘It’s asking for trouble, but OK.’
You can actually see the sea if you look over the palms and the treetops.
‘It’s all this vegetation,’ says John. ‘If you cut it down, you’d get rid of the monkeys too. And get a better view.’
‘I think it’s nice,’ I say.
‘A sea view, and all you can say is “Nice”!’
I take a mouthful of wine. John has added ice cubes and the outside of the glass is covered in water droplets. I swirl it carefully so that the ice cubes float round and round, quickly but always following the same course.
Luke comes out onto the terrace.
‘Can’t we go down to the beach soon?’
We say in unison that he should learn to relax.
The small path down to the sea has a sign saying that entry is at your own risk.
‘As long as there aren’t any snakes here,’ I say, looking into the green gloom.
‘Johannesburg has turned you into a real townie.’
I don’t reply but call out to the kids to watch where they put their feet. John cups his hands around his mouth and makes monkey calls.
‘Stop it!’ I say.
‘Maybe we can lure one out.’
‘That’s exactly what I mean.’
‘Are you scared?’
‘No, but we’re on their territory now.’
He goes on making a noise so I quicken my pace and leave him to his fate.
I stop with my back to the shady forest and the sunlight is so strong I raise my hand to shield my eyes. It’s a beautiful beach and not too many bathers – a family speaking German, a group of Indians with big beach umbrellas, and some black women paddling at the water’s edge, while their kids in swimsuits splash about. John has caught up with me and overtakes me, heading towards Luke who has already paddled out on his surfboard. Julie has a quick dip and then lies down on the beach with her earphones in.
I walk along the water’s edge for a while. My toes sink into the sand and the water is warm. John has plunged in and he’s swimming and snorting. A big wave comes towards me and I recoil. When the next wave comes I brace myself and meet it. My feet are lifted off the ground and although I paddle with my arms and legs I’m carried away by the water.
John is coaxing the key into the lock when we see a grey shadow flash past the kitchen window.
‘What the hell …?’
He tears open the door and we dash inside. A monkey is squeezing out of the slightly open window, and John yells at it just as we see its slender body disappearing. I hold out my arms to stop the kids going closer. Luke’s arm muscles flex against my hand.
The kitchen worktop is covered with food and every single bag and pack has been torn open and emptied. The wine glasses we drank from have been smashed.
‘I said we should put everything away!’ I say, but then John raises his forefinger.
‘Don’t say a word!’
I’m just about to snap at him when I notice he’s bright red in the face and wide-eyed. Instead I laugh and shake my head at him. He’s pacing up and down the kitchen, surveying the damage and swearing. The kids are giggling.
I control my voice with difficulty.
‘It’s not funny, guys.’
‘I think so,’ says Luke and they laugh even more. John shouts at them.
‘It’s unacceptable, totally unacceptable,’ says John over and over again in the car on the way down to reception.
I say nothing, but gaze out of the window at all the houses that look just like ours.
When we tell the receptionist what has happened she doesn’t bat an eyelid. She introduces herself as Deidre and I get the impression that she owns the place. She has perfectly set, grey hair and smells of cigarette smoke.
‘We were quite clear about it, I seem to remember,’ she says. ‘The fact that we have problems with monkeys and you can’t leave food out.’
John snorts and I hiss at him that it was exactly what I said.
‘We’ll help you clean up, of course,’ she says. ‘I’ll send two girls to your house.’
‘OK,’ John just says, but then stops on the threshold.
‘You really should shoot them.’
Deidre looks as if she’s heard this before.
‘You can’t shoot all of them. You have to learn to live with them.’
In the evening we have some wine on the terrace. The kitchen has been cleaned up and we’ve found new glasses.
‘It’s nice here all the same,’ says John.
We can hear the roar of the sea and the trees are rustling in the wind and with animals stirring.
‘Bloody monkeys,’ he says.
I laugh and it sounds more scornful than I had intended, but he doesn’t seem to hear my tone as he also bursts out laughing.
‘Forget about the monkeys now,’ I say feeling genuinely happy.
‘Yes, but they should shoot more of them, they really should.’
Maybe it’s the sea air. The sea air that makes me sit there next to him, smiling.
‘It’s so good to get away,’ he says after a while. ‘Have a holiday and a chance to spend some time together.’
He falls silent for a moment.
‘I’m really glad you wanted to come.’
‘The kids need to get out of the city,’ I say, staring into the dark, which suddenly feels so close.
He turns towards me.
‘There’s nothing I wouldn’t give not to have done it, you know that.’
I empty my glass.
‘Tomorrow’s another day,’ I say and go inside and to bed.
Next day John and Luke have planned to play golf. Julie and I are going to give them a lift and then go shopping to replenish the food stolen by the monkey, but first I drive down to reception. Deidre smiles as she catches sight of me.
‘I just wanted to thank you for your help with the cleaning yesterday. And to apologise for my husband.’
Deidre waves her hand.
‘Don’t mention it.’
‘We’ll pay for it, of course.’
‘Forget it. The girls were here anyway.’
I try to read her expression and think she looks sincere.
‘Maybe I can do you a favour in return then. We’re driving into town to do some shopping. Do you need anything?’
She looks at me for a moment and then lifts the cigarette packet from the desk so that I can see the brand.
‘You could buy me some of these. They run out so quickly. I wish I could blame it on the monkeys too!’
She laughs until she wheezes and I go towards the exit.
‘You can tell your husband,’ she says, ‘that we do shoot the monkeys, but they’re crafty. And you can’t kill all of them – that would be cruel.’
With one hand she coaxes a cigarette out of the packet, puts it in her mouth and lights it. I stand in the doorway, halfway out. Her fingers are bent as she takes the cigarette out. A grey cloud of smoke seeps from her lips as she says:
‘Besides, it’s illegal.’
I turn towards the sunlight and say that we’ll see each other again soon.
In the evening we sit around the fire out on the terrace. The neighbours knock at the door and ask whether we have any spare charcoal, so we invite them in on the spot and they put their meat next to ours. They’re called Grant and Lydia and come from Pietermaritzburg, they tell us. John seems to know someone who went to the same school as the husband.
Lydia is thin and pale with a hooked nose, but her skin is as smooth as velvet. From her stories I realise that we’re probably the same age. I cross my arms and hide my hands, which have seen better days. Then I say to myself that I at least have beauty to lose. Though there’s something about her. Grant keeps looking at her. In the middle of his conversation with John his eyes are drawn to her. John and I don’t look at each other, not in that way at all. I can hardly remember what it was like.
Lydia and I maybe drink more wine than we should, but we’re on holiday after all. The men are droning on in the background, discussing who actually scored the deciding try in a rugby match, which should have been long forgotten. The tropical forest is creaking and cracking below us.
Lydia is quietly humming a tune I don’t recognise, but it’s soft and pleasant. Grant looks at her again. For a moment I think that he’s watching over her and I don’t know who to look at. Lydia glances in his direction, then leans back and closes her eyes.
‘What a wonderful time we’re having.’
I mumble something in reply.
We sit in silence for a while. Then she says that we really have lovely kids and I thank her. They don’t have any themselves.
‘Though Grant is a fantastic husband all the same,’ she says and then I decide not to ask her about it.
When we go to bed John puts his arms around me and I let him lie like that, but pretend to be asleep. As soon as he’s fallen asleep I roll him over to his side of the bed.
We meet them again down on the beach the next morning. Grant is stripped to the waist with a heart rate monitor round his chest. Lydia is wrapped in a brightly coloured sarong and some strands have escaped from her ponytail in the sea breeze. It looks as if she’s been standing waiting for him. Their eyes meet and it strikes me how happy they look. I turn away and look at the sea instead.
‘It’s fantastic jogging here,’ says Grant to John. ‘You should come with me tomorrow.’
‘I’d love to,’ says John and I think to myself that he’ll probably want to go into town to buy some jogging shoes later on.
‘I don’t jog,’ says Lydia. ‘I lack iron.’
‘Neither do I,’ I say. ‘I lack self-discipline.’
As soon as I’ve said it I know it’s not true. It’s not me who lacks self-discipline, it’s John. And he doesn’t go jogging either. Maybe he’ll die of a heart attack if he goes running tomorrow.
When we get back to the house I say to John that there’s something about the neighbours but I can’t put my finger on it.
‘They seem fine to me,’ he says.
‘I didn’t say they weren’t!’
He takes a packet of salted crackers from the kitchen cupboard and starts scoffing them.
‘Well, what did you say then?’
I lean against the kitchen worktop and make an effort not to sound irritated.
‘That I don’t know what it is.’
‘What a razor-sharp observation!’
He wipes his hands together so that the salt flies everywhere and leaves the room.
‘John! The crackers! Put them back in the cupboard!’
He looks at me over his shoulder.
‘Have you forgotten the monkeys already?’ I ask.
‘You’re standing right there,’ he just says before disappearing outside.
I don’t touch the packet.
John decides to drive into town and see if he can find a pair of jogging shoes. Julie quickly says she wants to go with him, while Luke stays at home. I walk down to reception with a bag of cigarettes dangling from my hand.
I walk past the houses. Cars of different models are parked in front of them and beach towels are flapping in the wind here and there on the handrails. Otherwise all the houses are identical, painted in soft colours, the epitome of holidays and happy days off. Some of the turquoise doors are wide open and I try to catch sight of the families inside the pastel facades. A beautiful young woman is standing in a doorway. Her husband appears behind her and puts his arms around her, and then they close the door so that I can’t see any more. Outside another house a couple are loading their kids into the car. They have hard expressions, but when one of the kids shows them her doll they give a big smile as they look at it, before their expressions cloud over again. I think of our neighbours who invited themselves to dinner, and how I had noticed something about them without being able to put my finger on it. As if someone had opened a door slightly and then suddenly closed it again.
Deidre is sitting at her desk when I get there. I hand her the bag.
‘Thanks for your help.’
‘You shouldn’t have,’ she says, accepting them.
Then she gestures to the chair opposite.
‘Would you like tea or coffee?’
She gets up and fetches a mug.
‘Are there often snakes on the path down to the sea?’ I ask her.
‘It’s wilderness,’ she says shrugging her shoulders.
‘My husband thinks you should cut down the forest. Then you’d get a better view too.’
She laughs and lights a cigarette.
‘Good luck with that.’
She takes a drag.
‘It seems like he’s not much of a one for nature, your husband.’
I’ve never thought of it like that before. Actually, it’s me who doesn’t like the wild.
‘Oh yes,’ I say, ‘I think he is, in fact.’
She doesn’t react to my objection.
‘We shoot those monkeys all the time,’ she continues. ‘Sometimes we’ve hung dead monkeys in front of the houses as a warning. That’s a language they understand. They do things on instinct, don’t they? You just have to accept it.’
Then she laughs.
‘Although it seems the guests dislike dead monkeys even more than live ones!’
On my way up our white steps I see that grey shadow at the kitchen window again. I tear open the door and rush inside. The monkey clutches the packet of crackers, looks at me and disappears out of the window. I don’t even shout at it, but just follow it with my eyes until it’s gone.
Luke is asleep on the sofa.
‘Luke! Don’t you notice anything?’
He sits up and his spindly legs and thin arms seem to get entangled in each other.
I look out of the window and down towards the forest. Maybe the monkey is already sitting there, comfortably reclining in a palm tree and eating salted crackers. Who wouldn’t want to do that? They do things on instinct. You just have to accept it.
Darkness has fallen and the song of the crickets is broken by a knock at the door. Lydia is clasping a bowl of broccoli salad and Grant is carrying a six-pack of cold beer. I welcome them and John gives Grant a hearty pat on the shoulder and says that the coals are nearly ready.
The kids are playing cards in the living room. John and Grant are talking about monkeys, while Lydia and I are sitting on our own. She leans forward and whispers:
‘I really wanted kids but Grant suffers from a mental illness. It wouldn’t have been right.’
She looks at him and it’s as if he senses it, because he turns towards her and winks.
‘You can’t just think of yourself,’ she says.
I hug myself and nod without replying.
When John and I go to bed he snuggles close to me and I pull his arms around me. His body feels warm against mine and he smells slightly of beer, but mostly of sea salt and man. He whispers that he loves me, he’s always loved me, he’s been an idiot, he’s an idiot, he’s only ever loved me. I bite my lip so as not to start crying.
In the morning when I wake up, John’s side of the bed is empty. I get up, have a coffee and eat some cereal. The kids are still asleep and I enjoy the peace.
Half an hour or so later I hear footsteps on the steps outside. I open the door and John is sitting there, panting.
‘How did the jogging go?’ I ask.
‘It’s the shoes,’ he says. ‘They’re bloody uncomfortable. I had to cut it short.’
His T-shirt is wet with sweat and it’s running down his forehead.
‘Oh, I see.’
‘Can you get me some water?’
I go into the kitchen and find a large beer mug that I fill. I chuck in ice cube after ice cube and watch them sink and then bob back to the surface. The glass is cold against my hands when I take it out to him. He gulps it down.
‘Lydia told me that Grant suffers from a mental illness,’ I say.
John crunches an ice cube between his teeth.
‘Grant? He just told me that she was nuts. And that her doctor recommended them to get away so that she wouldn’t go completely off the rails.’
We look at each other and start laughing.
‘Bloody fools,’ John finally manages to say.
‘I said there was something about them!’
He gets up and kisses me.
We manage to turn down the neighbours’ mealie bread and boerewors and go into town to eat out. Luke sulks because he can’t have a beer, but it’s out of the question. Julie just wants a chicken salad without dressing, while Luke orders a double portion of sauce with his steak.
‘If that cow wasn’t dead already it’d drown now, at any rate,’ says John when Luke is served. The kids and I laugh.
We’re sitting at a round table and I can see everyone’s faces. Soon Luke will probably leave home, start university, order beer whenever he wants and there’ll only be three of us at the table. But there are four of us. It’s so natural. I get a bit tearful.
‘You’re wonderful!’ I say.
Julie glares at me and then puts her hands in front of her face. Luke grins.
John takes my hand and squeezes it.
‘What a fantastic family we have!’
When we’ve finished eating John asks for the bill. The waitress who brings it has a white blouse and a large bust. John chats with her, but I can see what he’s up to.
Without taking his eyes off her, he says:
‘I’m just settling the bill.’
I get up and leave demonstratively. I tell the kids to come with me and they obey.
We wait in the car. When John comes I turn my face away from him. He starts the car without saying anything.
John turns on the radio but I turn it off again. I cross my arms. He takes a curve a bit too fast and I slam my hands down on the seat to steady myself, even though he doesn’t seem to notice anything. I glare at him, but he doesn’t look at me. He just carries on driving, quite calmly. Then I say:
‘Why can’t you get a grip on yourself? We were having such a nice time!’
‘What are you talking about?’
I could strangle him.
‘Do you think I’m stupid and blind?’
‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘You just can’t stop yourself, can you? You’re like a bloody robot with a one-track mind, an animal!’
He doesn’t say anything, just stares out of the windscreen. I can see his jaw muscles moving, tensing and relaxing.
‘Is this how it’s going to be now?’ he says finally with an unexpectedly calm voice. ‘Are you going to mistrust me the whole time? Whatever I do, if I just pay the bill in a restaurant, you imagine it’s about something else.’
My eyes are stinging.
‘I’ll do anything,’ he says, ‘anything to make it all right, but I can’t undo it. That’s the only thing I can’t do.’
‘If you do it again I’ll cut your prick off, do you hear me?’
Julie screams from the back seat. They’ve been sitting so quietly, I realise now. Her face is pale and her eyes wide open.
When we get back I lock myself in the bedroom. John spends the whole night on the sofa.
The terrace doors are wide open when I get up. The white cotton curtains are fluttering. Luke is sitting on the sofa drinking juice straight from the carton.
‘Are you the only one here?’
‘They went down to the beach.’
‘Aren’t you going with them?’
‘Give me a chance to wake up first.’
With a shrug, I look at my watch. Then I go towards the kitchen but turn round:
‘Luke, please don’t drink from the carton. You’re not the only one in this family.’
He shakes the juice carton to show that it’s empty. I sigh and leave the room.
He calls out after me.
I stand with my back to him and take a mug from the kitchen cupboard. He doesn’t say anything else, so finally I go back to the living room.
‘Mum,’ he says looking at me. ‘Is everything OK?’
He looks so grown up sitting there. He’ll soon be a man. Where did all the years go?
‘Yes,’ I finally reply. ‘I was probably just a bit overtired yesterday. I didn’t mean you to hear all that.’
‘It’s not exactly as if we haven’t noticed that something’s wrong.’
I nod and don’t say anything else.
Luke has already gone down to the beach so I walk along the path on my own. The forest is creaking and dark shadows extend across the ground. It feels as if the trees are turning towards me from all directions. I try not to think of monkeys or snakes but the waves hitting the shore and the sand that will get between my toes, yet I start at the slightest sound or movement. Maybe John is right. Maybe they should cut down the whole forest. Let in light and air. A sea view.
There’s something on the ground in front of me. The bright colours make me jump, but I realise at once what it is.
It’s an empty packet of crackers, similar to the one the monkey stole from our place. Maybe it’s the same one. I bend down and pick it up. Then I look round.
Is the monkey sitting somewhere watching me, peeping at me through the dark green foliage to see what I’m going to do now? I lean my head back and look up into the branches.
Then I start laughing, I laugh at my folly. The monkey couldn’t care less about me. It stole because it could. It’s instinctive. It has nothing to do with me. If it’s there among the trees, it’s watching me because it’s afraid of me. Maybe it regrets leaving the traces of its deed on view.
The whole family are in the water when I reach the beach. I take off my dress, adjust my swimsuit and run out to them. John laughs.
We go back to the house for lunch and discuss what we should do in the afternoon.
‘Grant said there’s a fantastic beach a few kilometres away. I’m up for driving there,’ says John.
While we’re sitting at the table John’s phone rings. He looks at the number on the screen, gets up and leaves the room. I hear him answer, but can’t catch any words. Julie is telling us about one of her classmates who has gone to Europe for the holidays, but I’m having difficulty concentrating and just nod or make the odd remark now and then. I suddenly feel dizzy and drink some more water.
When John returns he sits down without saying anything, then he takes an interest in what Julie is saying. He puts the phone in his shirt pocket, with the screen towards his chest. I look at him, maybe I stare, but he doesn’t meet my eyes.
After lunch I clear the table. John brings some plates into the kitchen.
‘Who rang?’ I ask him.
His reply is short and swift.
‘I thought the whole office was closed this week.’
‘There’s always someone working.’
I look down at the plates in the sink and feel my eyes smarting.
‘John …,’ I say.
But he’s already gone.
I go to the toilet and then wash my hands in the washbasin. In the mirror I can see all the wrinkles in my face, which will multiply relentlessly. Suddenly I break out in a cold sweat. I grab hold of the edges of the washbasin to prevent myself falling over and stand with my head bent down for a long while. I feel as if I’m going to throw up but nothing happens.
When I come out of the bathroom everyone is ready to go.
‘Hurry up, Mum!’ says Luke.
I support myself against the living room wall.
‘I’m not feeling well,’ I say. ‘It must have been the lunch.’
John’s eyes rest on me.
‘Aren’t you coming with us?’
I shake my head.
‘OK. Shall we get you something from the chemist’s?’
‘I probably just need a rest.’
They pick up their towels and surfboards and depart. The last thing I see is John putting his hand to his breast pocket to make sure he has his phone on him.
I sit on the terrace. I’ve filled the large beer mug with ice and water. I sip it slowly. The nausea has subsided, but I don’t want to drink too quickly in case it returns. I think to myself that maybe I should go down to the beach, plunge into the waves, let everything wash over me, but I stay where I am. There’s something soothing about the wind blowing in the trees and the palms, something that deadens my thoughts.
I shut my eyes and listen, trying to concentrate on the sounds, on the cooling wind, on the sun warming my shoulders.
When I open my eyes again I see a monkey just a few metres in front of me. I sit absolutely still with my heart racing. The monkey crosses the terrace, looking here and there. Its grey, mottled body is both lithe and tense and the eyes in its black face are watchful. Yet it doesn’t seem to have seen me. The terrace door is open just a centimetre or so and the monkey approaches it and sticks its fingers in the gap. Then I get up and roar.
The monkey stares at me for a moment, standing absolutely still. Then it scurries away from the door in total panic, its legs knocking against each other, its paws clattering on the paving as it makes for the edge of the terrace. With my mouth wide open, the roar still coming out of my body, and every muscle tensed, I grab the beer mug and throw it just as the monkey climbs onto the terrace railing. There’s a dull thud as the mug hits the monkey and it falls headlong onto the ground below.
I dash to the railing. The monkey is lying on the ground. It’s not moving. At first I just stand and look at it, at the body down there on the grass. Then I dash into the house, out of the front door, and round the house towards the monkey on the other side.
I stop short. From a distance it looks as if it’s lying absolutely still. I carefully go closer. The monkey’s chest is moving slowly up and down, up and down. Its head is bleeding and a large, sharp, bloodstained stone lies at its side. The fingers of one hand move slowly, bend slightly and then stretch again. Its head is turned away from me and I step back.
My eyes fill with tears and my ears are singing. The monkey continues taking slow breaths and I hear its chest wheezing. I squat down carefully, scared that the monkey will notice something, and quickly drag the stone towards me.
I stand for a while with the stone pressed to my chest. It’s heavy and cool and I clasp it with both arms. The monkey is struggling for breath and red blood runs from its head onto the green grass. The monkey’s hands are twitching. I’m sobbing and shaking all over. I lift the stone as high as I can and scream as I throw it at the monkey’s head. I hear a crack, the stone rolls away and then the monkey lies absolutely still.
Cold sweat runs down my body. I bend down to see that the monkey really is dead. I creep round to the other side and meet its empty gaze. Then I lift my head slightly and see Lydia.
She is standing on the path leading into the forest looking at me. She has one of her brightly coloured sarongs wrapped round her and her hair is blowing in the wind. I open my mouth and close it again. I point towards the monkey but can’t find any way of explaining. The monkey is so small lying there and the stone so hard and brutal.
I suddenly notice that I’ve got blood on my hands and on my dress where I clasped the bloodstained stone. My back is wet with perspiration. I get up and walk quickly towards Lydia. She stays there but doesn’t meet my eyes. When I reach her I don’t know what to say.
‘You need a wash,’ she just says. ‘What if your husband were to see you like that?’
I start laughing. It’s so unexpected that I snort with laughter.
‘Thanks,’ I say, although I don’t know what for. ‘Thanks.’
I run through the forest without seeing where I put my feet. The trees reach out towards me from all directions but I hold my head high and keep on running fast, fast and straight ahead. When I get to the beach I run straight into the water with my clothes on and a wave engulfs me and drags me out. The water embraces me and I float where it wants to take me.
When I come out Lydia is standing on the beach just staring at me. I hurry past her and can’t stop smiling.
I run through the grounds. The asphalt is warm under my bare feet, but it just spurs me on to run faster. It suddenly occurs to me what I must look like, with wet, stained clothes and a crazy smile. I start laughing again and have difficulty breathing but I don’t stop. I run past the pastel houses, past all the well-ordered families, newly polished cars, towels hanging neatly out to dry. I keep on running until I reach reception. I tear open the door and don’t stop until I see Deidre at her desk with a cigarette in her mouth.
‘I’ve killed a monkey,’ I say once I’ve got my breath back.
Deidre puts down her cigarette.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Yes, a monkey.’
Then the laughter returns, engulfs me and I laugh until I cry.
‘I’ve killed a monkey! It came and I killed it!’
Deidre gets up. She takes a towel from a cupboard, and while I struggle to stop laughing she beckons me to follow her. We go out to her car and she puts the towel on the passenger seat. Then she calls a black man and gives him our house number.
‘You must show me,’ she says.
We drive through the grounds. I’ve pulled the towel over my shoulders, I feel a bit cold, but I’m smiling. We drive past a family. I meet their eyes without flinching.
I take Deidre round to the back of the house. The monkey is still lying there and I show her where it fell from, the beer mug I threw and the stone.
‘Well done,’ she says. ‘You shouldn’t let them suffer.’
The black man has arrived and Deidre tells him to take the monkey. He lifts it by the legs and tail and leaves.
‘Maybe you want it?’ she says looking at me. She looks amused.
‘No, of course not,’ she says. ‘But you did absolutely the right thing.’
Then she chuckles.
‘It’s the men who do the talking,’ she says. ‘It’s always the men who do all the talking. But in the end you know it’s the women who get something done.’
John calls out to me as soon as he gets home. I’ve showered and put on clean clothes and go out to him.
‘Have you seen,’ he says, ‘the neighbours are going home to Pietermaritzburg? They’re packing the car.’
I go outside with him and see Grant locking the front door just as Lydia is about to get into the car.
‘Are you leaving already?’ I ask.
Grant nods without looking at me. He shakes John’s hand, but just waves to me.
Lydia comes over to me. She hugs me and she’s cool and smells nice. She presses a slip of paper into my hand.
‘You’re welcome to call me,’ she says. ‘If you’re passing by or if you just want to call.’
We wave as they drive off and then turn and go into the house.
‘They were bloody strange all the same,’ says John.
‘They seemed fine to me,’ I reply.
Luke and Julie watch a film while John and I have some wine on the terrace. The trees are rustling and I can hear the waves in the distance. I know that something is stirring down there in the forest, stirring even though I can’t see the shadows now. I lean back and let my body rest. John is sitting next to me gazing up at the night sky. Maybe he’s looking at the stars. Maybe he can only see the dark. I can hear him breathing. Everything is still.
‘I’m so bloody angry with you,’ I say and it feels fantastic to be able to say it, to be able to say it so calmly.
He doesn’t turn towards me, but he replies:
‘I’m sorry! I can only say I’m sorry.’
I think of the monkey, the little monkey lying on the ground.
‘I won’t learn to live with it,’ I say.
I look out into the darkness, but it doesn’t scare me any more. The outlines of the palms are moving against the sky and the sea air is salty.
We stay sitting on the terrace as night falls. There are new people in the house that Lydia and Grant rented. We hear them laughing. I know nothing about them. Maybe it’s a family just like ours.
‘Semester vid kusten’ (Holiday by the Sea) is from Åsa Foster’s short story collection Man måste inte alltid tala om det (You Don’t Always Have to Talk About It), Bokförlaget Forum, 2014.
Rights: Henrik B. Nilsson, Nilsson Literary Agency
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